True value lies in what 'Stuff' represents, not its cost

"Sales beyond belief" ran The Arizona Daily Star's headline, following Sotheby's auction of Jackie Kennedy Onassis' possessions. Initially valued at $4.6 million at most, her stuff fetched a staggering $34.5 million. Coin collectors are now speculating ab out the eventual worth of the 11 Kennedy half dollars (available elsewhere for $12 each) whose value on this occasion soared to $8,500-plus.

The auction also included golf clubs, a rocking chair, and a 1992 BMW. Buyers could have located exactly similar items by checking the weekend classifieds, or going round a few yard sales. The prices would almost certainly have been considerably lower. Ya rd sale golf clubs can be found for $25-$50 per set. JFK's went for $772,500. His oak rocking chair fetched $453,500. I once bought a used rocker at a secondhand store for $20. Rightly or wrongly, it seemed to me a better deal than one costing more than f our times the value of my house.

I had a good time feeling superior to these misguided spendthrifts. A friend of mine has a saying: "If a thousand people do a silly thing, it's still a silly thing." Similarly, if you give $80,000 for a set of golf clubs, it's still only a set of golf clu bs. No object, I decided, could possibly be worth such an absurdly inflated price. You'd have to be crazy to buy this set from Sotheby's instead of the one at my neighbor's yard sale on Dawn Drive. It's only stuff, after all.

Stuff. The very word conveyed a feeling of bloatedness: to be overstuffed; uncomfortably full; overburdened with superfluous objects. Pepsi is currently exhorting us to drink their product and "Get Stuff!" This is Stuff in the abstract; unspecified objec ts which you're as yet unaware that you need. Check out the catalog: just bloat yourself with enough Pepsi to fill Jackie's BMW waist-deep, and you can get a "free" canvas tote bag. You probably already have more than enough bags to contain all the Stuff you own, but the lure is irresistible. Get Stuff. Get more Stuff. Get bags to stuff your Stuff into.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to grasp the logic of the need for Stuff. I looked again at the account of the Kennedy-Onassis estate sale and was bewildered anew. How can an object of little intrinsic value seem worth a fortune? What were all these people think ing? I simply couldn't relate. I rarely shop, and I hate knickknacks. I was convinced that my desire for and attachment to stuff is minimal. Then I asked myself: "If there were a fire, what objects would I save?"

What things would be worth risking your life for? I thought of my father's wedding ring. He wore it for over 40 years. It was taken from his finger when he died and sent to me. Then there's the 100-year-old beer stein he left me. He traded it with an "ene my" family for a can of cocoa in Germany in 1944. Beside it on my shelf stands a tiny, greenish, antique oil bottle, found by my husband in the dusty tower of the 11th century English church where we were married.

I was forced to acknowledge that if I lost any of these things, I would feel forever incomplete. If I were offered $80,000 for any one of them, I wouldn't hesitate in turning the offer down. An identical counterpart could never replace any of them. For me , what they represent is irreplaceable. A moment of friendship in a war zone; a tiny bottle that includes me in a continuum of 900 years; a strip of gold molded to the shape of my father's finger. These things aren't just stuff. They're part of me - and t hey unite me with all the lives they've touched in the past.

As the buyer of John F. Kennedy's chair sits and rocks, he may be regretting the vast sum of money that changed hands; or he may instead be experiencing a closeness with the man who sat there before him, and with an era and a nation they both shared.

Maybe, someday in the future, a Pepsi-drinker will find a canvas tote bag in a cobwebby corner of her storage shed, and remember carrying it on the happiest trip of her life. Or perhaps she'll throw it on the yard-sale pile, wondering whatever possessed h er to burden herself with it all these years. You just never know with stuff.

Kaye Patchett is a creative writing senior. Her column appears every other week.